Features Australia

Escape from Victoria

A refugee’s tale

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

He knew that this was their only chance. ‘Dad, my mask… I left it in the truck!’ The child’s panic was visceral.

After all they were outside, hundreds of kilometres from their designated bubble and in breach of curfew. Should they be caught, Nguyen Tran faced a mandatory jail term for crimes against the State, and his ten-year-old son would certainly be taken into care.

‘You don’t need a mask any more,’ he whispered, tearing off his own. He felt an uneasy sense of liberation. Three years ago masks were deemed necessary for public health; first to ‘flatten the curve’ and then to achieve elimination of the virus (‘a Sisyphean task,’ thought Nguyen). To forget one’s mask initially invited withering, suspicious looks from strangers. Now the act of non-compliance denoted the non-wearer as sociopathic. Worst of all, it was disrespectful to the Premier (#DoitforDan), who had worked tirelessly and selflessly to keep people safe. Venturing out with a naked face meant that Vicpol would respond within minutes to calls from anxious members of the public. Vans of black-shirted compliance officers with batons were never far away. They called it going ‘Wuhan style’, and they loved it.

The duo had been dropped at a forest clearing approximately 15km from the border zone near Mallacoota by Nguyen’s cousin Thanh, who drove a truck for one of the major supermarkets. Nguyen and his son had practised the routine of getting out of sealed tea chests in darkness, and tonight the disembarkation sequence took less than 60 seconds. ‘The boy is a natural,’ mused Nguyen’s own father while observing one such rehearsal. Nguyen senior, who had arrived in Australia by boat in 1976, was now too frail to participate in this dangerous mission himself. He would manage the inevitable questions about his son’s whereabouts with a combination of broken English and feigned dementia when Vicpol came knocking.

Nguyen desperately missed his wife Jasmine who had succumbed to stomach cancer almost a year ago. She had died alone because of some confusion at the hospital as to who was allowed to visit. ‘Covid precautions, you know.’ The hospital staff were apologetic, but seemed oddly indifferent to the suffering caused by the ‘breakdown in communication’. He knew that Jasmine would have been a willing accomplice in their dash for freedom.

Nguyen’s bakery had closed a year ago because of the ‘People’s Lockdown’. He could no longer afford to pay his staff, and with the widespread food shortages caused by disrupted supply chains, hunger was an increasingly familiar experience. How he craved the simple pleasures of a decent coffee and a Tim Tam. The purchase of ‘non-essential’ items had been outlawed by Premier Dan as a way of managing the ‘bad optics’ of lengthy supermarket queues.

Somewhat mysteriously, the numbers of Covid cases never fell below the five required for the lockdown to end (as any child will tell you: ‘less than 5 to stay alive’). A vaccine always seemed to be just over the horizon without ever materialising . Nobody was sure how many cases there really were. Did it even matter anymore?

His escape had to be planned with the utmost secrecy. His neighbour across the road, Wendy, was the local organiser of #ClapforDan. Nguyen made sure that she saw him whooping and clapping loudly for their leader from 3.00-3.05pm every day. According to Wendy’s social media she not only wanted to smash capitalism, but was also a ‘Black Mask’ volunteer. This quasi-governmental organisation drew members from teachers’ unions, universities and other activist networks. It was established in late 2021 to assist government in its efforts to identify and educate putative Inciters who wanted to discuss an end to lockdown. The Black Masks worked closely with the Blue Masks; a doctors’ collective which aimed to raise awareness about the risks of a third wave, and successfully lobbied to permanently ban kissing, indoor dining, and the teaching of children in schools (aka ‘Covid incubators’).

Members of the media and the legal profession, the Yellow Masks, helped to suppress scurrilous online rumours; for example the slanderous accusation that Premier Dan had secretly accepted bailout funding from the Chinese Communist Party after his GST revenue was cut off by the PM.

It was now 9pm. A blanket of mist provided some additional cover to the winter darkness. It would be a cold, hazardous trek by torchlight. Their journey would take them deep into the national park where, after a three hour hike, they would attempt to get some sleep before making their final bid for freedom just before dawn. A silver Camry driven by a ‘friend’ would meet them at the rendezvous at 6am. Nguyen had to trust that his contact wouldn’t just run off with the fee. Money was scarce these days. Even in New South Wales, unemployment was at 23 per cent. At least Sydney had cafes. He should have just paid a deposit.

It was too late at night for the Vicpol drones to be flying but he knew that extra police had been sent to the border to clamp down on a recent spate of ‘unauthorised departures’. People risked arrest by escaping north in small boats, inflatable dinghies, kayaks and even light aircraft. Most were caught and punished. Premier Dan referred to the escapees in his daily press conferences as being ‘selfish and un-Victorian’. ‘We are all in this together,’ he would remind us disappointedly.

Nguyen’s backpack contained a sleeping bag, some food and water, a paper map, a compass, a burner phone (so he couldn’t be tracked using the government’s surveillance app) and his most prized possession, a falsified NSW driver’s licence. He had destroyed his Victorian state passport long ago (the Vicpass was a novelty document used solely by footballers and politicians who were granted exemption visas to travel interstate. It was useless to everyone else and quickly became a cruel reminder to the non-elites of their miserable and indefinite incarceration).

The time had now come. Nguyen steeled himself, looked down at his son, gripped his hand and squeezed it. ‘Let’s go!’

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